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The camp Leon’s party made was nearly identical to the one they’d set up the night before—a relatively small palace-tree was flash-grown, and Leon set up the individual modules of his portable villa around it. The Evergolden earth mages then built a stone wall around the pieces of his villa, making their little camp quite tough. They had to do a bit of extra legwork getting rid of all the remains of the large and old trees in the area that Leon’s fire and the bulbous vine had destroyed, but in the end, setting up camp didn’t take more than an hour.

Once all the work setting up was done, Leon made the rounds, checking in on all of his retainers. For the most part, they were all fine, but Leon spent a little bit of extra time with Marcus and Alcander, both of whom had been hurt quite badly during the fight with the bulbous vine. After getting assurances that they were doing just fine, if a little sore, he then went to find his family.

Maia and Valeria were doing about as well as he expected. Anzu, likewise, seemed to be having the time of his life rolling around in the burned grass, and rather blatantly ignoring Anna’s hopeless attempts to get him to stop. Already, his pure white coat had turned gray from the ash and dirt that he was getting all over himself, and while Leon knew that he could get his griffin to stop, he just smiled and made for Elise instead.

Of all the people in his party, she was the one he was most concerned about. Like Talal, she didn’t have much in the way of combat skills, but Talal was decades her senior and had worked with Heaven’s Eye for a long time. He was also a manager for a team of gladiators, so he was at least tangentially acquainted with violence. Elise, however, was young, inexperienced in war, and had been injured in their first encounter in the forest. Knowing this, Leon wasn’t too surprised to find her in their private quarters, staring out of the window-projection on the wall with a blank look on her face, lost in thought.

She didn’t even realize that he’d entered the room until he gently embraced her from behind, and when he did, she was startled enough that she almost jumped to her feet.

“Hey, it’s just me,” Leon said conciliatorily, and he loosened his embrace a little. However, once Elise realized that it was just him, she grabbed his hands and pulled them back down around her shoulders and chest.

“Husband,” she muttered as she leaned back into him. She was silent for a long moment, and Leon didn’t disturb her. He just let her lean against him, let her feel his presence and know that she was safe.

After almost five agonizingly long minutes, she finally rose from her seat—doing her utmost not to free herself from Leon—and turned around, letting Leon’s arms drape around her upper arms and down her back.

“Leon,” she whispered, savoring his name and packing it with so much love and emotion that Leon couldn’t help but hold her tighter.

“Elise,” he replied, doing his best to use just as much love as she did, and from the way she smiled, he thought he succeeded. The sun itself couldn’t have been so beautiful as the vision in his arms.

But finally, she pulled back just a little and, looking a little more composed, asked, “What brings you here? Is everything set up?”

“Camp has been made,” Leon answered. “I still have some time before going to meet Cassandra to plan out our next moves and wanted to check in on my gorgeous wife.”

Elise’s smile widened, but then dimmed slightly as she averted her gaze. “I’m fine…” she said.

“You don’t sound that convincing.”

Elise just smiled again and pressed her forehead against Leon’s. “I’ll be fine,” she clarified. “There’s been a lot of excitement these past couple of days, and…”

She trailed off, but Leon knew how she wanted to finish that statement even if she didn’t want to say it out loud. “… And you’re regretting coming along?” he asked.

Elise looked slightly horrified, but Leon knew that he hit the nail on the head. She rushed to clarify, saying, “I love you, Leon, and I want to support you as best as I can, you know that!”

“It’s fine, I’m not angry,” Leon replied soothingly. “There has been a lot of excitement these past couple of days, and this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. Honestly, I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised that you wanted to follow us this far.”

“You know that I would never abandon you, or want to be left behind…”

“Of course, it’s just that I would’ve figured you would’ve stayed back on the yacht or something.”

Elise again fell silent for a long moment. “I just…” she started before stopping to think again. “I just… I just feel kind of useless, being left behind again and again,” she said. “I can’t contribute to these sorts of violent endeavors, and it’s frustrating. It feels like I’m being left behind every time you and Val and Maia go off on journeys like these. I couldn’t help with the wyverns and felt like I was just dead weight being dragged along by you and your retinue.”

“You could never be dead weight.”

“That doesn’t change how I feel. I thought that if I could tag along on something like this, it would help… that it would help me learn how to fight, and then I’d never have to be left behind again!”

Elise shuddered with unshed tears, and Leon took a few seconds to squeeze her against him and press his lips against her cheeks and lips a couple times.

“It’s fine if you’re not a warrior,” he said. “I don’t love you any less. You have skills that I will never have, but even if you didn’t, even if you were just a lazy, brainless beauty—those first two couldn’t be further from the truth, by the way—then I would still love you.”

“Really?” Elise said with a lot of good-natured skepticism. “Even if I were an empty-headed socialite?”

Leon blatantly open his mouth to answer, then stared at the ceiling in an exaggerated thinking expression. “Well, maybe not if you were empty-headed…” he said sarcastically.

“Hey!” Elise pinched his arm, but her smile had grown much wider and happier.

The two shared a laugh, and then Leon said, “Don’t feel ‘less than’ for not being a fighter. It doesn’t matter at all to me. I love you all the same. And if you want to turn back, or stay here, that’s fine, too. I love you, and I want you to be happy and safe. I won’t think any less of you for not wanting to continue, and I won’t think any more of you for wanting to continue. That’s just the way of it. I love you more than I can properly describe, and nothing will change that.”

Elise melted into his arms, joy spread across her face, her emerald eyes glittering with delight. Before she could respond, however, a quiet knock came from the door, and both Leon and Elise looked over to see Valeria poking her head into the room.

“Uh…” she said a little awkwardly, “the Princess is here. Just thought you ought to know.”

“Thanks, I’ll be right out,” Leon replied, and Valeria smiled and shut the door. Leon then turned back to his wife. “We’ll have the rest of the day at least to think about it. I’m thinking that this’ll be our base camp. Just think it over, all right? I’ll support you in whatever decision you make.”

Elise gave him a quick kiss. “Thank you, my love. It won’t take that long. Now, get out there and deal with the spoiled Princess.”

---

Cassandra was waiting for Leon when he walked into his portable villa’s dining room, sitting at the head of the table. Talal and one of the seventh-tier Evergolden escorts was present, but no one else.

“Finally,” Cassandra impatiently said. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait on anyone before you, Leon Raime.”

“If you’re going to stick around, then best get used to it,” Leon replied as he slid into the seat at the other end of the table. It would’ve been easier to talk to the Princess if he were to sit next to her, but given her hijacking of his usual seat, he couldn’t make himself look inferior to her by sitting even on her right. “I’m not going to rush around at your beck and call.”

“Frustrating…” Cassandra muttered, seemingly more to herself than to the room. Without acknowledging it for a moment, she simply launched directly into the purpose of their meeting. “So, we’re meeting here, wasting the rest of this day when we could be looking for these ruins you say are out here, Leon. Why?”

“We need to decide on a better strategy,” Leon said, fixing both the Princess and her older and more experienced bodyguard in his golden gaze, impressing upon them his seriousness. “A few injuries are one thing, but we lost one of our number today—”

“One of our number,” Cassandra corrected.

Leon just smiled at her and continued. “When people start getting injured, it’s usually a sign that we have things we need to improve. Those signs came yesterday. When people start dying, it means that we need to adjust our strategy going forward.”

“Are you saying you want to run away?” Cassandra asked, her tone challenging.

“If you let me finish, I’ll say exactly what I mean, saving you the trouble of guessing,” Leon coolly replied, staring right at Cassandra. She stared right back, her ruby eyes gleaming, daring him to say that they should turn around, but he had no intention of doing that. “What I’m saying is that we need to change our strategy. Not run away.”

Before the Princess could ask what he meant, the seventh-tier Evergolden mage jumped in, appearing to be at her wit’s end with their verbal sparring.

“What are you proposing, Leon Raime?”

“We’re not moving fast enough,” Leon said. “Our weaker mages are slowing us down, and they’re clearly vulnerable to the dangers of this forest. So, let’s keep this place as a base of operations, let most of our group secure it. Then, we have our strongest mages—even if it’s just those of us at the eighth-tier—head out into the forest on our own and scout the area ahead of us. We can bring the others back in once we have a better idea of the dangers we face, and the direction we need to go.”

“It’s not a bad plan,” the seventh-tier mage said to Cassandra, who pursed her lips in thought.

“Are you saying that the three of us should go in one group?” the Princess asked. “You, me, and that wife of yours?”

Leon, presuming that she was talking about Maia, said, “No. The three of us scout out in different directions. It would only delay us if we were to all travel as one.”

“And what’s to stop you from giving us false directions so that you can claim whatever it is you’re after without us around? Are you looking to hog all the glory for yourself?”

Leon glared at the Princess, his patience with her running low. “This isn’t about glory,” he growled, and the Princess paled slightly, recognizing that she’d angered him something fierce. “This is about ensuring that we find what’s here, and then we leave without spilling any more of our own blood. That vine monster could’ve done serious damage to us—and I mean the two of us, specifically—if we’d let our guards down. This forest is dangerous, and there’s no room for our egos. So how about we try and look at the problem with a little objectivity? Acknowledge the danger of this expedition, and act accordingly. Besides, I don’t think any of us are going to find the kind of ruins you hope are out there, while also being able to hide that find from everyone else. I think if any of us finds this place, then the entire forest will know.”

Cassandra didn’t look happy, but she at least looked suitably chastened.

Leon took a deep breath, then asked, “Are there any other suggestions? Criticisms that can be made about my strategy? Or should we go with this from here on out?”

Cassandra didn’t respond immediately, but instead stared at Leon for a long moment, then glanced at her seventh-tier companion. The Evergolden mage subtly nodded, and Cassandra sighed deeply. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll do this your way.”

Leon nodded gratefully, and then launched into a quick summary of what they still had to check. There were two more likely spots for his Clan’s research facility, along with a handful more potential spots outside of the zones that the Sacred Golden Empire had marked as dangerous. He decided that Maia and Cassandra could each search one of those most likely spots, while he checked out the less likely spots. He knew that he could cover quite a bit more ground than either of them could, and not only was he not going to hold himself back anymore, he also had a new piece of gear he wanted to put through its paces…

---

The entire expedition holed up in their new camp for the night. Since the decision had been made that they’d be staying here at least another night, the Evergolden mages set up a more intensive guard detail and reinforced the stone walls. Leon’s people, in turn, remained on high alert, ready to act as a quick response force if the camp was attacked. Leon, Maia, and Cassandra, meanwhile, prepared themselves for their recon mission.

Cassandra didn’t look entirely happy, but she’d at least agreed to Leon’s mission. The biggest issue Leon thought she had was his attempt to make a rule that if any of them found any ruins, they’d make note of them and return to the camp. Just based on his own first-hand knowledge of his Clan’s defenses and the kinds of things they tended to vigorously defend, he knew that if this research facility was still functioning, then none of them, save for maybe himself, would be able to get in without having a lot of trouble.

A lot of potentially deadly trouble.

So, if they found anything, they’d fall back and assemble everyone else to tackle the problem as a group, rather than trying to enter on their own and getting killed.

Cassandra had looked particularly bitter when she’d accepted that rule, and for that Leon couldn’t blame her. He didn’t think she’d follow the rule, but if he were honest, he didn’t think he’d follow it, either.

It was only going to be the three of them heading out into the forest. The two seventh-tier Evergolden mages were going to remain behind to command the camp, and Leon trusted Valeria to be professional if they were to be attacked.

Elise, meanwhile, had gotten back to Leon that night. She had decided that while she didn’t want to return to civilization, she also couldn’t bring herself to continue on the expedition proper. So, even when—or if—they found what Leon was looking for, she’d be remaining at camp until everything had been secured. She’d taken enough chances on this journey, and she wasn’t looking to get injured again.

Leon had to admit that he was a little relieved to hear that decision. While he wanted to support his wife, he also knew as well as she did that she wasn’t a fighter, and the knowledge that she could get hurt weighed heavily on his mind whenever she was out with them.

But now, he could head out into the forest on his own and relax.

The next morning, with little more than a look and a smile of provocation, Cassandra was the first to take off from the camp and fly out over the dense, primeval forest. Maia rolled her eyes, then glanced at Leon. When he nodded and smiled at her, she pulsed back confidence and love through their connection, and also took to the skies.

Leon wasted no more time after that, and seized the air around him. With his Thunderbird blood, the air readily responded to his will, and he near-effortlessly rose into the air. As his boots left the ground and the wind blew around him, he felt himself relaxing. He was wearing his armor, but that didn’t make much difference; if he was flying, he was happy.

Without further ado, he conjured his invisibility gem into his gauntlet, and as he took off over the forest, darkness enshrouded him, and he faded from view. Not too far away, he could see Maia doing the same, and it seemed that Cassandra didn’t like that development, for she paused in mid-air to stare at where both of them used to be, a deep frown on her face before she continued on to her objective.

Leon smiled as he flew out over the forest. He flew with great speed, not paying too much attention to where exactly he was going and keeping his eyes open for a good place to land. He wanted to get at least twenty miles away from the camp so that he could do his thing in peace. Maia, Cassandra, and both seventh-tier Evergolden mages would still be able to see him at that distance, but he was confident that they wouldn’t notice him in time.

Eventually, he found a suitable location, and descended through the canopy to land on a hill overlooking a bend in a river covered in shrubs and trees. He was just about covered from visual sight from all directions, and from what he could tell, there wasn’t anything actively dangerous on the hill.

So, without further ado, he landed on the hill, pulled all of his armor and clothes into his soul realm—rendering himself visible in the process—and then activated his transformation enchantment.

His blood seemed to vibrate within him, and he felt like he was throwing off the heaviest shackles in existence as his arms turned to wings, his feet to talons, and his body grew. In a matter of seconds, he was standing below a large tree in his avian form.

He didn’t take off immediately, but instead conjured his newly-enchanted iron ring around his left talon. Into that ring went his invisibility gem, and once again, Leon faded from view. It took a little longer, but his avian body became invisible. And only then did he lift back off.

Now, he felt like he was finally ready to find this research facility.

 

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warden1207

Bio: An aspiring writer, currently writing 'The Storm King' on RR and my own personal website, wardenreading.com

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